Winter Biking: Show Your Cycle Some Lovin'

I felt like I was walking my dog into the grocery store as I wheeled my mountain bike through the storefront door at the Broadway Bicycle School bike shop in Cambridge at Broadway and Inman. I’m so used to locking him up outside when I go in somewhere. But immediately, coop member and technician Suzanne Hunt, a young but mature woman with a progressive flare, took my bike right into her hands and put it gently up into the workstand where she could examine it.

Concerned, I started asking all the questions any doting owner would ask, and Suzanne was kind to oblige my quizzing, which really was about the guilt I was feeling for being such a bad owner. My gears were shot, my pedals broken, and my lock insufficient.

Suzanne kindly walked me through all the essentials of getting my bike in good shape for the winter and the full year round. It’s just that winter is the toughest of the seasons on a bike, so now’s the time to act-for your sake and the bike’s.

Here are the essentials:

The Brakes
Although everything depends on the weather and frequency a bike is ridden, it is best to have the brakes adjusted or replaced once a year. Water and dirt can wear them down quickly, so get your brakes in shape now if they’re in need of some attention.

The Bearings
Your bike has several bearings that are crucial to safe performance. If you don’t know what bearings are, then you definitely need someone like Suzanne to check them out for you. And you probably had a really hard time in TOM.

Editor’s Note: It’s all ball bearings these days…

Spoke Tension
We ride on city streets, and that means bumps, cracks, and potholes a small child could swim in. Spoke tension is the key to endurance, and your spokes should be tight enough to withstand the test.

The Drive Train
The drive train includes the bike chain as well as those mean-looking stacked metal wheels with the sharp teeth. Those teeth should be sharp, both in the front chain rings and the rear cassette or free-wheel (depending on your bike model). If the teeth are worn, your gears may not shift when you need them to or the chain could become disengaged. Take your drive train seriously.

Front and Rear Lights
If you don’t have a steady front light on your bike and you ride at night, you’re a criminal. And if I catch you, I’ll report you. It’s people like you that take freedoms away from the rest of us and you should be ashamed. Forget Strategy tomorrow, you heathen-go turn yourself in to the authorities.

The purpose of a front light is not to luminate the street, but to make you more visible to motorists. You can get a light for about $20. And if you want to freak out oncoming cars when riding in the left lane, you can get a really good light for about $150. Actually, Suzanne tells me that not having a front headlight is more of a problem if you want to sue someone for hitting you on your bike at night. You probably won’t get ticketed for not having a front light. But it’s still very unsafe. And you’re still a criminal.

A rear light is not required, but it’s good sense. And if you get one with a strobe flash like mine, don’t stare at it too long-it could cause seizures.

Wear A Helmet, Damnit
Our very own Sports & Health Editor Derek Mendez was hit by a car on his bike last term and was saved by a helmet. Don’t fool around with your life, especially for the sake of your hair-do. You’re paying way too much to be here. Wear a good helmet, especially in the winter, and invest an amount commensurate with how you value your life. It may be the best life insurance you ever buy.

Suzanne told me that having front and rear lights plus wearing your helmet raises your safety level by more than 70%. I didn’t get the name of the journal where that study was originally published (perhaps it’s still in peer review), but it seems reasonable to take her word for it.

Ride High
Your seat should be high enough so that when the ball of your foot is on the pedal (and that’s where it should be) and the pedal is all the way down, your leg is only slightly bent. This means when you stop, you’ll probably use your tippy-toes to touch the street. But this position gives you the most power and control on your bike.

Protect Yourself from Villains
For some reason, Suzanne and her coworker Noah would not stop talking to me about theft. You’d think the margin on locks is like 1000%. But apparently, Cambridge is quite the villainous area. “I’ve heard every story in the book,” Suzanne tells me. If you leave your bike unlocked and unattended for even a minute, it can be stolen. It happens. Invest in a top-line lock such as KryptoLok, and get the rear tire chain that goes with it. Do the math and it’s really cheap insurance. A good lock will cost you $65 and last ten years. That’s not bad, especially compared with what you’d pay for car insurance.

The Economics of Rear Tire Theft
You may not think having your rear wheel stolen is so bad. But a rear wheel costs $65; a tire and tube, $20; labor, $20; rear cassette, $30; peace of mind: priceless. You don’t have to be a finance wizard to see that those numbers add up to, well, a lot, so take a minute and run that chain through your back tire, Suzanne says. “It’s still faster than parking.”

All in all, my repairs and maintenance will come to around $120 this time-not bad, especially since my bike is my primary form of transportation. And it’s a helluva lot cheaper than a car, plus I get the exercise. Once my battery-powered heated body-suit from QVC arrives, I’ll be all set.

The Business and the Biking Way of Life
Actually, Suzanne and her colleague Noah talked to me a lot about the economics of biking and its advantages over trying to drive everywhere. Their business is not a capitalist enterprise-it’s a cooperative (coop), which means that all earnings are reinvested in the business and decisions are made by a board of coop members. So the mission of the business is not just to sell stuff, but to be “transportation advocates,” Suzanne and Noah tell me. Apparently even activists know the value of good branding. They’re not militant, but they know their stuff and they believe in it.

The Broadway Bicycle School has actually been around for thirty years, which is longer than many small enterprises survive. Maybe there is something to this coop thing. Both Suzanne and Noah say that the decision-making board of five pretty much work in consensus on almost everything. That’s sure not how my corporate jobs have been.
There’s a strong sense of culture there, too, Noah tells me, himself too young to have even been alive when this place was begun. “The environment here has been built over thirty years and handed down,” he tells me. He’s definitely “drank the Kool-Aid.” But it’s cool to see true believers.

The Broadway Bicycle School is an interesting institution, and it is a recommended experience just for the alternative atmosphere alone, should you need to get away from campus for a bit. Bring your bike. It’s a full service repair shop, but it also offers tool rental for $9 an hour for those who know how to use them. You can also hire a private assistant to teach you how to repair your bike for an additional $18 an hour. They also host evening classes for adults for all levels of bicycle repair.
Suzanne tells me a bike owner should invest about $150 a year in maintenance, and while that sounds like a lot of money compared with the price of a bike, “you have to look at it as a way of life,” she says, like an annuity for a lifestyle. It’s the price you pay for living like the free-spirited urban soul that you are.

Broadway Bicycle School is at Broadway Bicycle School or call 617-868-3392. Mention this article and maybe next time they’ll give me a break on my bill.